We have the heart for battle, says Montenegrin trained by SAS

Phil Rees

30 July 2000

An officer from Montenegro's Special Police, the Spezijalni, has described the role of the SAS in training the force. Tensions between Montenegro and Serbia – the last republics remaining in the Yugoslav federation – are likely to be stretched even nearer to breaking point by the revelations.

The 15,000-strong force will be the front line of defence if the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, attempts to oust the separatist Montenegrin president, Milo Djukanovic, and replace him with a leader loyal to the union with Serbia.

The presence in Montenegro of the Seventh Battalion of the Yugoslav army, which has been busy recruiting there, raises the prospect of a bitter fratricidal war on Montenegrin soil between the pro- and anti-Milosevic camps.

Sparked by Mr Djukanovic's increasing threats to break away, the Seventh Battalion keeps an ever-watchful eye on its Montenegrin counterparts. But British involvement in the republic, in the shape of the SAS, may have escaped the gaze of the black-bereted recruits to the Yugoslav force.

The revelation comes amid an increasing sense of doom in Montenegro, following the announcement by Mr Milosevic that he will seek re-election as Yugoslav president in polls in late September. An internal EU analysis recently predicted that Mr Milosevic would most probably win at least another four years in office.

In the grounds of the Hotel Zlatica, now converted into a barracks on the outskirts of Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, Velibor, 23, an experienced officer in the Spezijalni, spoke of his time with the British unit: "It was great. We learnt a lot. Some of the techniques they use are different to ours."

The threat from fellow countrymen in the Seventh Battalion is treated very seriously: "If somebody wants to harm our country, you have to shoot him. It doesn't matter if it's your friend or your father or your brother. My best friend – or he used to be, he joined the army and I joined the police – told me 'brother, it's better for me to shoot you because then you can't shoot me'."

Velibor stands well over 6ft tall, as do most of the officers in the élite unit of the Special Police – seemingly in contrast to their SAS tutors. "They told us 'You have very big guys here... we are all small guys and we like to run, and you all like to lift weights.' We were very strange to them."

The Special Police has a fierce reputation in Montenegro – its gung-ho approach seemingly unsettling the SAS. "They thought we were crazy. When two of us banged into a house and started shooting into walls, bullets were flying around and they said 'Oh, it's a real gun, real bullets? You're crazy guys, you don't have protection'. But we have a heart, we don't have protection but we have a heart. A big heart."

The role of the SAS in Montenegro is highly sensitive, with the Special Police seen as a challenge from inside Yugoslavia to Mr Milosevic. His supporters have regularly claimed that "foreign forces" are arming and training the Spezijalni. Montenegro's government officially denies any involvement by foreign nations in the training or arming of the police.

The SAS training includes hostage rescue. A key scenario played out by the anti-terrorist unit of the Spezijalni is how to react to an attempted coup by forces loyal to Mr Milosevic.

The Seventh Battalion, all Montenegrin, whose largest contingent is based near the northern town of Bijelo Polje, has been recruiting in numbers for the past six months.

Ivan, a softly spoken man in his late thirties, fought for the Yugoslav army during the wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s. He was under the orders of Mr Milosevic then and would continue to follow his orders now.

"If Djukanovic calls for a referendum or moves in any other violent way towards independence, the Seventh Battalion will follow the orders of the president. If there is a situation where weapons will decide the outcome, we are ready. We are training for that."

Mr Djukanovic describes the Seventh Battalion as a "paramilitary force". "Mr Milosevic has always formed groups with the aim of provoking internal conflicts," he says.

Original article